A word from Robert Ellis: Ego, any candidate, and underdogs

A word from Robert Ellis: Ego, any candidate, and underdogs

Howard Schultz is ignorant.

He has a degree from Northern Michigan University, has a proportion of learning from the work he’s done, and has accumulated a measure of experience from living as long as he has. But he’s ignorant.

That is not an anomaly. All humans are ignorant about many things. The list about which we know little to nothing far exceeds the list about which we will ever know something.

One of the things Howard Schultz is ignorant about is politics in the United States. Again: not anomalous.

But consider Schultz’s approach to office-seeking. He did not take the time to learn systems, history, law, and process. He just went ahead and declared an interest in candidacy (there’s obvious precedent in the present unprecedented president).

But it says something about the individual who endeavors to public service from a position of ignorance: It says that the position is not important enough in that individual’s mind to warrant learning about it. How much value could he possibly place on something that he has so little interest in learning how to do, what it means, how it operates, its history and impact and dynamics? Even transgressing a system (for example, in hopes of revolutionizing it) requires understanding that system first.

That indicates this venture of Schultz’s is little more than vanity project. It’s another thing to add to his c.v.: CEO, Dabbler in Men’s Professional Basketball, President of the United States.

There’s an interesting myth of accessibility built into the nation’s consciousness. It takes several different forms; “Anyone who works hard enough can be wealthy” is a classic incarnation. While I suspect the myth of accessibility has a foot in an idea of equality, ultimately it’s hollow because it never delivers that equality. In fact, if it did demonstrate equal accessibility, it might instantly be reviled, because part of the unspoken allure of the myth is that success is often mentally hoarded as “success for me, and to hell with everyone else.”

The myth of accessibility promulgates into other areas: “Anyone can run for president.” The impulse to equality built into the system should uphold the ideal behind the nation itself, that this is a place that welcomes and elevates.

But it comes with a problem: Appended to “Anyone can run for president” is: “and should be taken seriously, to the point of winning.” Our national political circumstance does not exist in a vacuum. The idea that every political cycle is entirely brand new, just as unmarked as it was in 1789 (and it’s not like that was some pristine event) is not only disingenuous, it’s dangerous. It ignores past contributions, fails to account for past mistakes, and proceeds from another myth: That the United States of America is a genuine meritocracy.

Our national fascination with underdogs has come unhinged from understanding what an underdog actually is. An underdog isn’t unskilled or unversed in the relevant arena of competition. Every time some long-shot wins a major world sports event it’s not because they have no knowledge or ability in the sport. They’re at the event <i>precisely</i> because they have knowledge or ability. Unskilled winners at such events aren’t underdogs; they’re sampling error.

What I don’t know how to do is cultivate the equality we seek as a national characteristic while demonstrating just how ignorant it is for a candidate to seek office without understanding that office. How do we enhance the drive to learn before we proceed when the particular job in question holds the lives of other human beings in its hands? We demand that surgeons and pilots and engineers and food inspectors learn the job first, before releasing them to responsibility. What advantage in failing to do so for the presidency? And yet, how do we demand such accountability without entrenching a kind of narrow tyranny? How do we encourage learning as precedent for undertaking a task of such significance?

The office of President of the United States is the pinnacle of individual public service in the nation. It must not stand merely as a stroke to the ego. Yet to achieve its halls requires an act of demonstrable and unrepentant ego. How do we foster the courage to serve without emboldening the impulse to assume the act of service is the act of a savior?

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